Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Roasted Pumpkin seeds, AKA Pepitas, are a great treat, and as is the case with many seeds, pretty good for you, too.

My Cousin Sally writes,
OK, Eben – Halloween is upon us, which means it’s time to nom on delicious toasted pumpkin seeds! Yay! But here’s the dilemma… Recipes on the Internet vary from 250 degrees to 400 degrees and 7 minutes to 50 minutes. And some recipes boil the little suckers before toasting! What the heck. Thoughts??
P.S. I used to go with the soy sauce and seasoned salt route, but now I’m a fan of the olive oil and sea salt mix. But I’m perplexed by the temp and time…

Sugar Pumpkins - Many good things inside!
Sugar Pumpkins – Many good things inside!

Great question! Here’s the drill for making great roasted pumpkin seeds every time.

Remove seeds from sugar pumpkins, and by golly, save or use that flesh for wonderful things, like Pumpkin Flan. Roasted seeds make a great garnish for squash bisque, and make a fabulous garnish on Oaxacan style chiles rellenos.

Boiling pumpkin seeds before roasting makes for crunchy skins.
Boiling pumpkin seeds before roasting makes for crunchy skins.

Simmering the seeds in salted water is a must-do – It helps make the seed covers less chewy, more crunchy, and also gets seasoning deeper into the seeds. It also helps remove any residual stringy stuff.

Use 4 Cups of water with 2 teaspoons salt for every Cup of seeds.

Bring salted water to a boil, then add seeds, stir, and reduce temp to maintain a steady simmer.
Cook for 10 minutes, then drain through a single mesh strainer.
Pat dry with paper toweling.

Preheat oven to 400° F – High temp roasting will give the crunchiest, most consistent results.
Note that Avocado oil is especially good for this – it’s got the highest smoke point.

Savory, like sea salt and cracked pepper, works great on pumpkin seeds.
Savory, like sea salt and cracked pepper, works great on pumpkin seeds.

Season each cup of seeds with,
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil, (Olive or vegetable oil is OK)
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
Optional –
1/2 teaspoon chile flake or powder

Savory seasonings work better than sweet, as the sugars tend to make seeds prone to burning in a high temp roast. Any combo you like is worth trying – Soy-Lime-Garlic, Lemon Thyme & Sea Salt, Smoked Salt and cracked Pepper, etc. Our Go To Seasoned Salt is fantastic here.

If you really want a sweet version, roast seeds with just the oil, then add sweet seasoning after the roast – The oil will help it stick, and you won’t burn your goodies.

Roast, evenly spread on a baking sheet, for 18 to 20 minutes, until nicely toasted.

Pumpkin Seeds roasted with Sea Salt, Avocado Oil, and Chile Flake
Pumpkin Seeds roasted with Sea Salt, Avocado Oil, and Chile Flake

Remove from oven and baking sheet, allow to cool before decimating.

And as my Sis, Ann Lovejoy notes over in her wonderful blog, “Store pepitos in a tightly sealed jar out of direct light for up to 2 months or freeze them for longer storage.”

And Happy Halloween!

Time to explore some salt-free seasonings

For most of us, Salt is a must in the kitchen. When the term ‘season lightly’ is bandied about, it almost always means add salt and ground pepper to taste. As I’ve noted here in many, many times, one of the major differences between home cooks and Pros is the judicious use of salt and pepper throughout the cooking process – Seasoning lightly in layers. If you often read electronically as I do, take any of your cookbooks and do a word search for salt – Guaranteed it’ll come up more than any other term in most, if not all of them you own and use. In other words, the influence of salt in cooking is felt damn near everywhere – So what to do when you simply can’t have that mineral any more? Time to explore some salt-free seasonings. 

Salt’s ubiquity in cooking isn’t a mistake. In addition to being used as a preservative for thousands of years, salt does yeoman’s duty in waking up or suppressing certain flavors. Ever wonder why something like a cake recipe often calls for a pinch of salt? Its presence rounds out how we taste, smell, and feel food in our mouths – Even sweet stuff. Taste a fresh batch of soup or stew without salt in it, and the vast majority of us will note something to the effect of, it tastes bland, off, flat, no backbone, and so on. A dish that we expect to note the presence of salt within, and doesn’t have it, will seem incomplete or out of balance. As oft noted in the food world, we eat through our sense of smell as much as we do taste, and here again, salt plays a pivotal role – It enhances the volatility of many aromatic components, making their presence much more notable to our schnozes – It does this by freeing aromatic scents from the foods in question, thereby making them more intense to our perception. It wouldn’t be out of line to state that our brains have salt receptors – When it senses salt where we think it should be, it’s a happy brain, and vice verse when it’s not there – That’s powerful stuff.

Sodium chloride is a mineral, which is fairly unique, food-wise. Given its broad power in the kitchen, salt becomes an imposing thing to do without, or to adequately compensate for the absence thereof. An old friend contacted me yesterday, asking for salt free seasoning blends. Her Hubby recently suffered a serious medical setback, and as such, his Docs say no mas with salt. Medical and dietary restrictions are the primary reasons folks are forced to give the stuff up. When it’s medical, it’s serious – a guy really can’t cheat and expect to recover fully or quickly. The current trend in medical thinks says too much salt isn’t good for your blood pressure, heart, liver, or kidneys, and can lead to increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. But absolutely no salt isn’t that great for you either – The indication being that moderate salt intake affords some protection from those ills, while an absolutely zero salt diet probably does not. It has some critical functions, acting as an electrolyte to balance fluid, as well as aiding nerve and muscle function. But again, that’s moderate use. 

The WHO calls moderate less than 5 grams daily intake, but that’s for sodium as a whole, not just salt. If one’s diet includes regular doses of fast food, and/or highly processed foods in general, chances are good you’re taking in far, far more than that – Often two or more times that RDA, in fact – The FDA claims that roughly 11% of our sodium intake in this country comes from an actual salt shaker, while over 75% of it is derived from packaged, processed food. Let that sink in for a sec…

In other words, it’s not at all out of line to say that most American’s problems with sodium doesn’t come from seasoning, but from eating shitty food. That’s easily remedied, in a way – Get rid of the junk, and you’re mostly good – Or as I used to teach in first aid classes, just go around the outer ring of the grocery store. That way, you’ll get produce, protein, dairy, and beer – And most of what’s in the inside probably ain’t all that great for you, anyway… Of course, just stopping eating a high sodium diet, and still enjoying what you eat, isn’t as easily said as done – Doing that takes some help – and that’s where low or no salt spice blends come in.

If you’ve poked around here, then you know most of the blends I’ve offered do contain a fair amount of salt. Many commercial seasoning blends contain salt first and foremost, for the reasons detailed herein, so how should we compensate? Salt free or damn near is an obvious step, but not a fulfilling one necessarily – Perhaps we should rephrase the question as, how do we compensate with something that will adequately fill the taste and flavor enhancing qualities of salt? The quick answer is acid and umami.

When reviewing the ingredients in commercial no salt seasoning blends, (and how many of us actually do that, by the way?), it becomes readily apparent that the most popular contain at least an acidic constituent, usually powdered citrus or vinegar. Yet quite a few have no viable salt substitute at all. To me, this is a no brainer – If we’re out to successfully replace salt, there must be something effective in its place. Flavor balance among the primary tastes, (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, and possibly kokumi, described as mouthfulness or heartiness), is a key to great overall taste, and a key to many cuisines, especially Asian. Simply removing salt without compensating for and considering the other primary taste factors is unlikely to yield a satisfying result. Again, acidity and umami are the primary candidates to fix that.

Umami is often regarded as being closely associated with MSG, monosodium glutamate, the sodium salt of glutamate. Contrary to a lot of common myth, MSG is not unnatural – It occurs in many foods, (It’s why we dig Parmigiano-Reggiano and tomatoes, among others), and it’s found in our bodies as an amino acid. Granted, there are some folks who don’t tolerate it well, but there are also, to my knowledge, no viable studies that tie MSG to nerve damage, as has been broadly claimed in the past, and many of the studies that found it deleterious to health involved people ingesting quantities far above anything us relatively sane folk would do. MSG contains appreciably less sodium per weight than regular salt, and as such certainly can be considered as a viable constituent of a low salt seasoning blend. Pure MSG is available readily, as are MSG powered seasonings like Maggi. The latter is a good candidate for a spice blend, (it comes in cube form as well as liquid), as a very little bit added to an herb blend packs a big umami/salt punch. Maggi has a bunch of other things in it, herbs, aromatic bases, and the like, depending on where it’s made – Swiss in origin, there are variants made all over the world, and they’re all unique. All that said, if MSG just isn’t on your list, then consider acids.

When it comes to salt free home made spice blends, citrus or vinegar are excellent salt substitutes. Both can be bought powdered, as can lime, lemon, and orange, and all of those in very pure form – These are spray dried, and contain nothing but dried citrus juice. You can also buy, or dry at home, citrus and citrus peel, albeit they won’t have nearly the punch, weight per weight, that dried juice will. As stand alones, or perhaps with the tiniest touch of MSG or regular salt, acids can be effective and satisfying salt replacements.

Next, let us consider the best herbs and spices to employ. This is where things get fun, because replacing or reducing salt calls for the use of what may be considered somewhat exotic ingredients. While there really aren’t any spices, herbs, or aromatic bases that taste salty, there are quite a few that can add their own unique punch to a blend – Something that can contribute to that sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami balance and fill in the missing pieces. Alliums, like garlic, onion, and fennel can do a lot in this regard. So can chiles, throughout their range of heat and smokiness – everything from cayenne to Piment d’Espelette, urfa biber to pepperoncino, or Szechuan to Thai, and any of a hundred other regional gems in this vein. Then consider some of the warmer spices that may not usually make it into your thinking for every day spice blends – Cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, coriander, and nutmeg come to mind. No, these won’t replace salt, but they can provide a balanced flavor profile that intrigues a tongue dismayed by the lack of a favorite thing – This stuff is all about receptors – in our tongues, eyes, noses, and brains – Whatever we need to do to adequately fill the void is the ticket. Add to this the heady, heavier notes of traditional constituents like basil, bay, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, and sage, and you’re in the wheelhouse.

The final consideration is proportion. This really will depend on what you’re building. Let’s say we go for something you’d like to use as an every day blend, something that could go on a wide variety of dishes as a salt based blend might. If it’s me, I’m going allium heavy, with onion and garlic leading the way. How about a Mexican based blend? Chiles are the obvious lead, with pepper as a close second. Speaking of pepper, how about that as a lead? I’d follow it with alliums and sweet pepper notes. Something for poultry? How about paprika, onion, chiles, lemon and some floral herbs? 

I think, and trust, that y’all get the idea. I’ll put a few of my ideas up, but here as always – and especially here, where it may be really important to y’all – I need you to take this and run with it. There are no truly bad choices. If you’re unsure of where you’re going, make a tiny batch and see what you think. Tweak that and get where you want to be, and then, guaranteed, one day you’ll use it and think, ‘this is good, but I should…’ and the answer to that is damn near always, ‘yes, do!’

With all of these blends, combine and mix thoroughly. If you’re starting with whole spices, grind them fine. I transfer blends to a shaker topped glass jar, stored away from direct sunlight. Depending on the gauge of your shaker top, you may need to run the finished blend through a single mesh strainer to make sure it’ll flow well. Caking can be an issue, especially in humid environments. Calcium Phosphate is yet another edible rock that does yeoman’s duty as an anti-caking agent. It’s readily available online, and yes, it’s perfectly fine to use and consume – A teaspoon or two in any of these blends should do the trick.

 

Urban’s Every Day Lo Salt Blend

2 Tablespoons granulated Onion

1 Tablespoon granulated Garlic

1 Tablespoon Smoked Paprika

1 teaspoon dried Mustard

1 teaspoon ground Pepper

1 teaspoon powdered Lemon

1/2 teaspoon Sage

1/4 teaspoon Maggi seasoning

 

Urb’s Low Salt Pepper Blend

2 Tablespoons ground Black Pepper.

1 Tablespoon ground Red Pepper

1 teaspoon ground Green Pepper

1 teaspoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1 teaspoon powdered Vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground Celery Seed

1/4 teaspoon Maggi seasoning

 

Garlicky No Salt Blend

2 Tablespoons granulated Garlic

2 teaspoon powdered Lemon

2 teaspoon ground Tellicherry Pepper

1 teaspoon Urfa Biber

1 teaspoon Vinegar powder

 

Urb’s No Salt Mex Blend

1 Tablespoon ground Ancho chile 

1 Tablespoon ground Pasilla chile 

1 teaspoon ground Chipotle chile

1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1 teaspoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon powdered Vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground Coriander

1/2 teaspoon Mexican Oregano

1/2 teaspoon ground Cumin

 

Urb’s No Salt Poultry Blend

1 Tablespoon sweet Paprika

1 Tablespoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon powdered Lemon

1 teaspoon ground Pepper

1/2 teaspoon Chile flake

1/2 teaspoon granulated Honey

1/2 teaspoon Sage

1/2 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

 

Urb’s No Salt Italian Blend

1 Tablespoon Basil

1 Tablespoon Oregano

1 teaspoon Rosemary

1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1 teaspoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon powdered Vinegar

1/2 teaspoon powdered Lemon

1/2 teaspoon Marjoram

 

Urban Chinese Five Spice Blend

1 Tablespoon whole Szechuan Peppercorns

3 whole Star Anise

1 stick Cassia Bark (AKA Chinese Cinnamon)

2 teaspoons whole Cloves

2 teaspoons whole Fennel Seed

Allow a dry, cast iron skillet to heat through over medium heat.

Add Szechuan pepper, star anise, cloves, and fennel seed to the pan. Toast the spices until they’re notably fragrant, about 3 to 5 minutes. Keep the spices moving constantly to avoid scorching.

Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Add the toasted spices and cassia to a spice grinder, blender, mortar and pestle, or whatever you use to grind spices. Pulse the blend to a uniform rough powder.

It’s Fall – Time for Roasted Tomato Sauce.

It’s Fall, which means that here, anyway, the tomatoes rule the garden when many other crops have moved on. If you plant any reasonable amount of them, you run into ‘what to do’ quite quickly – It’s absolutely not OK to let them rot, of course – preservation is a must, but so is fresh use – When you can go outside and hand pick your tomatoes for any meal, its a thing to be cherished, far as I’m concerned.

Virginia Sweets on the vine, ready for dinner prep
Virginia Sweets on the vine, ready for dinner prep

Then you’re into a decision – whether to make something that uses fresh or cooked, but hey – Why not do both? there’s arguably no finer use of fresh from the garden tomatoes than great sauce for pasta and a nice, crisp salad on the side.

There’s a big camp behind the championing of canned tomatoes for sauces, and I get that – There are plenty of times when that’s what I’ll go for too – But not when a fresh alternative is right out the door. Besides, whether it’s a San Marzano, or any other designer breed, a canned tomato is still a canned tomato. It’s processed, and you simply must cook with them, if for no other reason than to disperse the taste of can. Frankly, I don’t care how good the original fruit was – It’s been living in a can, OK? All that aside, the canned camp will further exclaim that most tomatoes we can afford in the store suck for taste, and they would not be wrong – Excluding farmers markets and CSAs, and damn near anything you grow in your own garden, of course.

Finally, Canites claim their stuff has it all over fresh for juice, something you certainly desire in a good sauce. Depending on what you grow, it can take quite a lot of tomatoes to reach the equivalent of a couple of cans – Be that as it may, it’s my experience, and that of most gardeners I know, that home grown crop volumes are not a problem. Frankly, if you use more fresh tomatoes than you would canned in order to achieve a commensurate volume of sauce, one could logically argue that you’ll produce a richer, more complex product, (and the fresh pectin makes for nice thickening, too). Finally, roasting fresh tomatoes will produce all the lovely juice you could possibly want, and deepens the flavor profile as well – That’s game over, far as I’m concerned.

30 minutes at 400° F yields perfect roasted tomatoes
30 minutes at 400° F yields perfect roasted tomatoes

This year, we grew Mighty Matos, grafted plants that produce astounding yields and quality. Ours come from Log House Plants out of Cottage Grove, Oregon. If your local nursery doesn’t carry Mighty Matos, bug them until they do – The yield, quality, disease resistance, and heartiness of these plants is truly stunning. One of their varieties is the Virginia Sweet, a large, fluted, truly lovely little beast. What initially starts out as pale green ripens through orange to orange-red monsters of a pound or more – They’re an heirloom, beefsteak variety with a rich, tangy-sweet flavor that shines in sauces, salsa, and anything else you can think of. I highly recommend you try them next year.

Really, with ingredients this fresh, the trick is to go minimalist, and not add or do too much to what nature has already perfected. The recipe below makes plenty for 4 to 6 folks, or avanzi per due, (leftovers for two, I think…) A classic soffritto provides all the backbone you’ll need. You can scale this up or back quiet easily, too.

Fresh Tomato Pasta Sauce

12 – 16 fresh Tomatoes (pick enough to fill a baking sheet, and you’re good to go)

(Optional) 1 Pound fresh ground Pork

1/2 Cup Onion

1/2 Cup Carrot

1/2 Cup Celery

4-6 cloves fresh Garlic

1/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/4 Cup hearty Red Wine

4-6 leaves fresh Basil

1 sprig fresh Parsley, (or 1 Tablespoon dry)

Shake or two of ground Chile

Salt and fresh ground Pepper to taste.

Dice onion, carrot, and celery, smash and mince garlic.

Roll and chiffonade basil leaves, mince the parsley.

Preheat oven to 400° F and set a rack in the middle position.

Cut all of your tomatoes in half, (if you like some fresh in your sauce, leave two or three out and just dice them)

Lightly oil a rimmed baking sheet, and add tomatoes, cut sides down. Season lightly with salt and pepper, and drizzle with a little more olive oil.

Roast for 30 minutes, then remove from oven and allow to cool enough to handle.

Measure and assemble remaining ingredients, then set your mise en place beside your stove for easy access.

When you cook, get your mise en place right, every time
When you cook, get your mise en place right, every time

In a stew pot, Dutch oven, or big, heavy skillet over medium heat, add the pork if you’re using that. Sauté until evenly browned, then transfer the meat to a large bowl, leaving the juices and fat in the cooking vessel.

Fresh ground pork isn’t absolutely necessary, but...
Fresh ground pork isn’t absolutely necessary, but…

Add the remaining olive oil to the pan and allow to heat through. 

Add carrots and sauté for a couple of minutes. Add onion and continue cooking for 2-3 minutes more, then add celery and sauté for a couple minutes longer. Add the garlic and parsley and sauté for another minute, until the raw garlic smell dissipates. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Classic soffritto gives your sauce proper backbone
Classic soffritto gives your sauce proper backbone

Let the pan heat for a minute, then add the red wine, and scrape all the naughty bits loose from the bottom of the pan. Allow the raw alcohol smell to dissipate before proceeding.

Add one cup of water and allow to heat through.

Add the tomatoes by hand, removing the skins as you go – They’ll be super soft and easy to squish right into the pot – stir to incorporate.

get your hands in there and squish those roasted ‘matoes!
get your hands in there and squish those roasted ‘matoes!

Add the pork and stir to incorporate. Taste sauce and adjust seasoning as needed.

Allow the sauce to heat to simmering, then turn heat down to low. Continue a slow simmer for an hour or so, stirring occasionally. The sauce will be thin at first, but will thicken nicely as it simmers – Stop cooking when you’re sauce is a bit thinner than you like it, remove from heat, add the basil, stir to incorporate.

Simmer gently until you arrive at your desired thickness
Simmer gently until you arrive at your desired thickness

If the sauce thickens or reduces too much for your liking, add enough water to get things where you like it.

Taste and adjust seasoning if needed prior to serving.

From garden to table in under 3 hours
From garden to table in under 3 hours

The sauce will last for  a few days, refrigerated in an airtight, non reactive container, but I’ll bet it won’t last that long.

The Sad Truth About Microplastics in Sea Salt

It’s more than a sad day. It’s a genuine wake up call, to boot. Today is the day I’m resigned to going without some of my various sea salts. Why? Well, to quote Mr. McGuire from The Graduate, “One word – Plastics.” Yes, you heard me right – Pretty much all the sea salt out there is infested with the shit. 

Analysis of plastic contaminants by location
Analysis of plastic contaminants by location

We started to hear rumblings about this last summer, when a bunch of articles came out in popular media. I decided to look to source material, and I gotta say, I’m not at all thrilled with what I found. It’s rather interesting that the majority of news pieces I looked into quoted one study, ‘The presence of microplastics in commercial salts from different countries,’ from the journal Scientific Reports. That vehicle is owned by the Nature Publishing Group, who “highlights its editorial policy as one that is focused on scientific rigour and validity, rather than perceived impact.” Scientific Reports, in their FAQs, states further, “Scientific Reports publishes original articles on the basis that they are technically sound and scientifically valid, and papers are peer reviewed on these criteria. The importance of an article is determined by its readership after publication.” Of course, how you feel about the validity of that process and philosophy has obvious bearing on the perceived validity of the works published therein. 

Breakdown of microplastics in sea salt.
Breakdown of microplastics in sea salt.

I looked at several studies from various academic sources, to achieve what I felt was a good balance of findings. Across the board, the news was indeed rather dire – sea salts from all over the globe are contaminated with microplastic fragments, fibers, filaments, and films. Studies from the U.S., Europe, Asia, China, and South America all reported the same thing, with remarkably similar findings of the volume, nature, and origin of the contaminants. Dr. Sherri Mason of the University of Minnesota lead one such study – Her synopsis was simple and to the point – “All sea salt—because it’s all coming from the same origins—is going to have a consistent problem. I think that is what we’re seeing.”

Breakdown of microplastics in sea salt.
Breakdown of microplastics in sea salt.

So what, exactly, is this stuff? Naturally it varies somewhat, but not as much as one might think – The ubiquity of it is alarming. Microplastics are micrometer sized pieces, (A micrometer is 3.937 × 10-5 of 1” – meaning it takes 25,400 of those to equal an inch – The symbol for a micrometer is μm.) These are very tiny shards, fragments, and fibers, which speaks volumes about just how much plastic has broken down to pieces this small, all around the world. Sobering, isn’t it? It’s not just the giant trash island in the Pacific, it’s that microscopic shards infest every ocean, coast, and to some degree, lakes, rivers, and even wells. Polymers, pigments, amorphous carbons – Polypropylene was the biggest contaminant, followed by polyethylene and cellophane – No big surprise there, huh?

What’s in your sea salt? Plastics.
What’s in your sea salt? Plastics.

Study samples averaged roughly 500 – 700 particles of microplastics per kilogram of salt. The Scientific Reports piece was bold enough to state that, “According to our results, the low level of anthropogenic particles intake from the salts warrants negligible health impacts,” while adding the caveat, “However, to better understand the health risks associated with salt consumption, further development in extraction protocols are needed to isolate anthropogenic particles smaller than 149 μm.” AKA, we can’t measure stuff smaller than that accurately with our current test methods, and we got no idea how much or how harmful smaller stuff might be. For my mind, their statement sidestepped the well established fact that plastics are excellent absorbers and carriers of all kinds of hazardous substances. I had to switch a daily medication recently, because the stuff I was taking, (which is made in China), had a highly carcinogenic industrial solvent in it – A substance not allowed in the US or EU, and that shouldn’t be anywhere near a pharmaceutical manufacturer. If that happens, how much of a stretch is it that tiny shards of plastic could harbor things that are absolutely not good for us? Not much, far as I’m concerned.

General size of microplastics in sea salt
General size of microplastics in sea salt

We all know how out of hand plastics are on this earth. Plastics infest every facet of the planet at this point – Land, sea, inland waters – Everything – affecting humans and wildlife every bit as much as our environments. Leachate from plastics has been tied to cancers, birth defects, inhibited immune systems, and disrupted endocrine systems, for starters.

And how well do we handle the stuff? A recent study published in the journal Science Advances, lays claim to being, “the first global analysis of all plastics ever made.” And the verdict? How about this, “Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent has been recycled.” Ouch – And we’re not getting better at that, by the way. As former second and third world countries ‘advance’, they not only aren’t interested in dealing with first world trash any more, they’re generating epic volumes of their own. So 90% of over 8 billion tons of plastic, (and counting!), goes where? Landfills, and all too often, the ocean, lakes, rivers, streams, and so on. Plastic in landfills can take a thousand years to decompose – Hell, those plastic bags we use for veggies from the store last at least a decade, and as long as a century depending on where and how they’re disposed of. And water bottles? How’s five hundred years grab ya? Like I said – It’s sobering, when we’re staring at real world numbers.

So now we come to sea salt, and why it’s so susceptible to microplastic contamination. The answer may seem obvious to some, not so much to others. Most sea salts, including the legendary stuff like Fleur de Sel, San Francisco, Malden, Trapani, or Sal de Anana, to name but a few, are produced in shallow impoundments, where sun and wind gradually evaporate the sea water, leaving behind salt and their signature minerals and elements – And microplastics. It is these long produced, famous named varieties that are most impacted, and at greatest risk. For me, as much as I love the distinct flavor profiles of great sea salt, it’s all just too much – I’m not willing to use it any more, or put it in blends, or recommend it to y’all.

Mined salt is generally free of plastic contaminants
Mined salt is generally free of plastic contaminants

Are there salts relatively free of plastics? Yes, thankfully, there are. The difficulty, in many instances, is knowing exactly where the salt you buy comes from. Take a famous name, like Morton – They’ll divulge that they produce salt from the three primary methods – Natural Evaporation, Mining, and Vacuum Evaporation. Most salt producers do the same, but getting more specific than that can be a bit more difficult. Morton produces sea salt “from the sparkling waters of the Pacific,” and from “the Mediterranean,” (Both of these are sun evaporated salts, so guess what…) Mined salts are relatively plastic free, as the ancient beds they derive from haven’t been exposed to plastic contamination. The same should be true for most vacuum evaporated salts, depending, of course, upon the salt source, but again, that’s not always easy to discern. Many of the latter are well-based processes, and while there is evidence of plastic contamination in wells around the world, it’s at a much lower rate than sea water. The bottom line is that, currently at least, the vast majority of non specific-origin salts divulge exactly where they come from or how they’re produced.

Vacuum evaporated salt can be made with little or no plastic contamination, depending on its source.
Vacuum evaporated salt can be made with little or no plastic contamination, depending on its source.

So, how does one know one is buying mined salts, which would be the most plastic free option? Cargill Corporation, which produces and supplies bulk salt to many brands, mines from Avery Island, Louisiana, among other sources – so product from that source would be quite safe. I think that the bottom line is that us end users will need to do some research, including contacting the consumer affairs departments for a given brand or brands, if we want to be assured as to the source of their salt – And they may or may not tell us what we want to know.

Real Salt is genuinely plastic-free sea salt
Real Salt is genuinely plastic-free sea salt

Must we then be resigned to giving up the unique flavors we’ve come to know and love from great sea salts? The answer is – thankfully – no. There are known source, mined sea salts that are plastic free. Here in the States, Real Salt comes from Utah, where it is mined from an ancient seabed that existed through the Midwest in the Jurassic period. Buried under many layers of rock, soil, and volcanic ash, this is about as pure as you can get, and it tastes great to boot – They produce coarse, kosher, fine, and powdered versions, in everything from a small shaker to 25 pound bags.

Hope springs eternal – May we wake up and start addressing the problem whole cloth – If it’s not already too late.

NOTE: As always, I give reviews or recommendations because I like what I write about. I don’t receive anything free, discounted, or in exchange for a favorable review here.

What makes Lawry’s seasoning salt tick?

What is Lawry’s Seasoning Salt? To tell the truth, I had no idea, and didn’t have any in the house. Then someone told me that this stuff was the seasoning for the dreaded Taco Time Mexi Fries – I happen to like those evil little things, so I bought some Lawry’s to try it out. While it turned out that my source was most definitely mistaken, the blend does have a nice flavor profile, and it’s rather venerable stuff – So I thought, why not dive in and see what makes Lawry’s seasoning salt tick?

Real Deal Lawry’s - Mysterious in several ways
Real Deal Lawry’s – Mysterious in several ways

The blend came to life back in 1938, as seasoning for prime rib beef at Lawry’s namesake restaurant in Beverly Hills, (Which is still around, by the way, and there’s a good few more branches now). Described as a, ‘unique blend of salt, spices and herbs,’ it’s a proprietary blend, (just like the stuff that graces those Mexi Fries). While the company ain’t givin’ it all up, they go so far as to list, ‘SALT, SUGAR, SPICES (INCLUDING PAPRIKA AND TURMERIC), ONION, CORNSTARCH, GARLIC, TRICALCIUM PHOSPHATE (PREVENTS CAKING), NATURAL FLAVOR, PAPRIKA OLEORESIN (FOR COLOR). Contains no MSG.’ It’s an interesting mix, not the least because of the absence of ground pepper.

Now, that paprika oleoresin is nothing more than an oil-soluble extract from chiles – a very common coloring agent, so no big deal there. Of course, if you want to dissect this stuff to recreate it, you need more than just ‘spices, including…’ and ‘natural flavors’ to work from – But that’s not as easy to come by as you’d think – Obviously, companies protect their proprietary recipes carefully, and sometimes they don’t tell you what’s in there because they don’t particularly want you to know – Turns out both are the case with this stuff.

To dissect stuff like this, what I do is open the carton and pour it into a bowl so I can look at it, feel it, smell it, and start getting a better idea of what’s actually in there. With the Lawry’s it wasn’t as easy as some others I’ve dug into – The mix is pretty fine, making it harder to isolate and taste individual components. I’ll do anything from vibrating the blend different ways to encourage separation, to sifting and picking directly from the mix. And on top of all that, I certainly look online to see what others might have found before me.

As far as the latter pursuit goes, it turns out that there are two slightly different wanna be versions of the blend out there – and then a whole lot of people just copied one or the other verbatim. What I got out of it was a pretty good baseline mix, and three very cool little mysteries that absolutely no one had really properly discussed, let alone figured out – So, more about that.

What I dissected, tasted, saw, and smelled tells me that the base mix for this stuff is salt, sugar, celery leaf, paprika, onion, garlic, cayenne, turmeric, and cornstarch – A pretty standard dry rub mix, albeit the turmeric and cornstarch are interesting – More on that shortly. The tricalcium phosphate is there to prevent caking, and it’s the exact same stuff I use it all our blends – It’s basically a purified, powdered rock, and occurs naturally in cow’s milk. That pretty much takes care of the spices, so on to those little mysteries I mentioned.

When you look up ‘what’s in Lawry’s seasoning salt,’ you’ll find all the stuff I mentioned, but when you try to dig deeper, you’ll not find very much. Looking into the ‘natural flavor’ thing was the least fruitful of all, but I did get there, and the answer shows in spades why the search was so difficult. A very persistent blogger, who loved the stuff, became concerned enough to start asking uncomfortable questions. She ended up talking to the Consumer Affairs department at McCormick, the maker of the blend. After significant hemming and hawing, they ponied up that the ‘natural flavors’ were in fact partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil – AKA, undisclosed trans fats. Said blogger then went to the FDA to ask how such things could be left undisclosed, or euphemistically termed ‘natural flavors’ – The FDA rep’s response was that ‘the oils are natural.’ When the blogger pointed out how hydrogenation pretty much trumps their initial state, she was told she was ‘free to not buy the product if she wished’ – Your Federal gummint in action, folks… in any case, yes, I think the trick they pulled is bullshit, but it is what it is. So, mystery #1 is basically a great reason to engineer a better analog at home.

The next What’s That In There For item is cornstarch. Innocuous enough, but not a thing you see in a lot of seasoning blends – So what is the deal? Internet musings focused on cornstarch as a thickener, or as aid to developing a nice crust on a protein. Both are true enough for the stuff, but this is not the case in the trace amounts it’s found within this blend. What I believe cornstarch is doing here is much more subtle and a very neat trick indeed – It’s called velveting. In certain Chinese regional recipes, a small amount of cornstarch is added to the sauce for a protein, most often as part of a marinade. When the protein is subsequently cooked, the cornstarch combines with meat juices to form a thin barrier layer – This layer acts to seal moisture into the meat, and results in a notably juicier final product. It’s especially effective for high heat cooking, like grilling, broiling, or stir frying. Cool mystery #2. 

The third cool thing is turmeric. As mentioned, this isn’t an ingredient you see much in seasoning blends, and it may just be the je ne sais quoi that sets Lawry’s apart. Turmeric, Curcuma longa), is a rhizome, like ginger, and in fact it’s in the same family, Zingiberaceae. These days you can sometimes find it in mainstream grocery stores – I’ve found it Fred Meyer more than once. It looks much like ginger on the outside, but when you slice into it, there’s that gorgeous dark orange colored flesh, and a scent that is to me much deeper and more nuanced than its more popular cousin. While ginger is all about heat and power, turmeric is softer and subtler – bitter, peppery, musty, and mustardy beneath the almost carroty primary notes – It’s stunningly good stuff, and it’s been around in Asian medicine and cooking for a long time. While I noted that it’s not common in spice blends, that meant not common here – For my mind, the most glorious example of turmeric in a mix comes from India and North Africa, where you’ll find it mixed with curry, cumin, coriander, cardamom and cinnamon, or maybe black pepper, clove, and nutmeg – Lots going on in those things.

Any way you shake it, Lawry’s is a pretty cool blend. While I couldn’t find who it was who initially developed this blend, I’ll tell you this – Between the cornstarch and the turmeric, I’d bet that the Chef was either Asian, or at least versed in Asian cuisines, and we’re the richer for their contribution. This stuff is well worth using as a basis for experimentation and development into something personal to you, which is exactly what I did. Below you’ll find my swing on the blend, tweaked to my liking, but true to its roots – It’s got quite a bit less sugar, and less salt overall than the original, with a couple of other twists. You’ll notice that the original stuff is quite red – That’s the paprika oleoresin, which again is nothing more than a colorant. I subbed annatto seed, which adds a bit of color, and an earthy note as well. Give it a try and then go wild.

Mine versus the original - The orange is all about the oleoresin coloring, frankly
Mine versus the original – The orange is all about the oleoresin coloring, frankly

Urban’s Lawry-Like Blend

1⁄3 Cup fine Kosher Salt

1 Tablespoon Smoked Paprika

2 teaspoons Bakers Sugar

2 teaspoons dried Celery Leaf

1 1/2 teaspoons Turmeric

1 1⁄2 teaspoons Arrowroot

1 teaspoon Tricalcium Phosphate

1 teaspoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1/4 teaspoon ground Chile (I used Tabasco’s, use whatever you like)

Combine all ingredients and mix well.

My Lawry’s inspired blend
My Lawry’s inspired blend

Pour into a single mesh strainer over a second bowl and run the blend through, discarding anything that won’t pass.

Store in an airtight glass container.

Maque Choux – A Cajun Twist on Succotash

The other day, Diane Whatley Nix, a friend on a social media cooking group called Wok Wednesdays, shared an image of Maque Choux made in a wok. Instantly, I was shown a flash of brilliance for the cooking method, and reminded of a delicious dish I hadn’t made since leaving Texas six years ago. Note: If you’re into wok cooking, then you need to check out the group – It’s dedicated to cooking our way through Grace Young’s The Breath of a Wok, and it’s a serious gas!

Maque Choux (AKA mack shoe, muck shoe, muck show, and so on), is the Cajun version of that venerable side dish, succotash. The name may sound French, but it’s probably a Creole derivation of a native term. This is a great side dish at any time of the year, but especially in summer, when all of the veggie constituents are right outside in the garden. 

Many folks know of succotash and assume it to be southern, but that would be incorrect – Succotash came from some of the original occupants of New England – The name derives from a native term, possibly the Wampanoag word msíckquatash, (boiled corn kernels), or the Narragansett sohquttahhash, (broken corn kernels).

Succotash was, and is, a base of fresh corn, some kind of shell bean, and a little protein – nowadays, most commonly bacon, but back then in New England, fish or game. Any number of additional veggies and herbs might be added, like tomatoes, sweet peppers, chiles, fresh herbs and other seasonings – all of which are New World foods and therefore likely as authentic as anything else. There are a dizzying number of ‘authentic’ succotash and maque choux recipes out there, but the truth is that damn near anything you feel like doing will be authentic enough – These are dishes designed to use what was ready at the time, and later down the line, to clean out a fridge, maybe.

Succotash was popular because it was filling and nutritious. That base mix of corn and beans is rich in protein, carbohydrates, essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals. It’s still a popular side dish at many a New England Thanksgiving dinner, and was likely a main course at that original dinner hosted by the locals, to which a ragtag band of Puritans and Strangers were invited. Those settlers quickly learned that the key base ingredients lent themselves readily to drying, which meant a lifesaving, year round food supply for a struggling population.

As us white usurpers spread across the new land, (including my direct ancestor, who arrived in 1636), succotash came along for the ride, morphed by local crops as it travelled. In the south, dang near any corn and bean combo that’s fried up in lard or butter is called succotash, albeit the vast majority of the time, the bean in question will be a lima, and there will almost always be okra.

Those migrants included the Acadiens, French people exiled to the Canadian Maritimes by the Seven Years war between Britain and France in the middle of the eighteenth century. While many Acadiens remain in the Maritimes, a sizable group made their way south to warmer climes, specifically, Louisiana, which was a French colonial holding since about the time the Puritans hit the beach at Plymouth. And of course, Cajuns are in Louisiana to this day, and from that many good things have come, including maque choux.

Study up some on maque choux, and you’ll see one glaring difference from traditional succotash – It don’t have no beans on board. That’s not to say you couldn’t, or that beans aren’t popular in that neck of the woods, because you could and they are -But, when you see how the dish morphed, you’ll understand right away – It’s because of the only aromatic base that we here in the colonies can lay claim to – The Holy Trinity.

We have the Cajun folk to thank for our only original combo – onion, celery, and green pepper, and really, nothing else, (albeit when used in soups and stews and whatnot, some folk do like to whip a little roux right in with it as it cooks, to kind of get a leg up on things). Now, the key to aromatic bases is the ratio, and in that regard, there are a couple of camps for the Trinity – those who do equal measures of each, and those who portion like mirepoix, 50% onion, 25% each pepper and celery. For my mind, it kinda depends on when you’re making it. If we’re talking the non-growing season, I’d go for the heavy onion version, but if you’re in the sweet spot, where those things are right out there in your garden, I’d absolutely opt for equal shares.

As for the protein, again, you can do what you like with no shame. I like local, smoky pepper bacon myself, but down south, a lot of folks are partial to andouille sausage, and you’d be hard pressed to go wrong there. Honestly, anything you’ve got that needs using would be lovely, from pulled pork to shredded chicken, (or even beans.)

Finally, the wok as a cooking method/vessel is simply brilliant. As Diane noted, making maque choux in one adds a perfect crispy crunch to the dish that you’d be hard pressed to get anywhere else. It’s also fast, and fun, and very pretty, so give that a go. This recipe will make enough for four, and maybe some leftovers

Maque Choux a la Urban

3 ears fresh Sweet Corn

4 strips Pepper Bacon

1/2 small sweet Onion

1-2 stalks fresh Celery, including leaves

2 Anaheim Chiles

1 fresh Tomato

2 cloves fresh Garlic

4-5 fresh Chives

1 sprig fresh Thyme

1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil

A few shakes Go To Seasoned Salt, (I prefer our smoky version)

A few twists fresh ground Pepper

Mise en place for maque choux
Mise en place for maque choux

Cut kernels off the corn in two passes – Take the first to roughly cut the kernels in half,then the second to get what’s left – This gets all the corn milk in play and adds a bit more moisture to the mix – Cut the corn into a plate or shallow bowl. If you’re shy getting to the base of the kernels, flip your knife around and use the spine to scrape out those last, sweet bits – And don’t friggin’ cut yourself.

Stack your bacon slices, cut them down the middle lengthwise, then into roughly 1/2” squares.

Dice the onion, celery, and chiles into roughly equal piles.

Slice the tomato – You can gut it if you like, (M is always offended when I leave the guts in…), or not as you please.

Mince the garlic, thyme, and chives.

Set the wok over a medium high flame and heat through –  A drop of water should vaporize pretty much instantaneously when it hits the wok, then you’re ready to go.

Stir fry bacon first - Your wok will thank you
Stir fry bacon first – Your wok will thank you

Stir fry the bacon, stirring steadily with a wooden spoon.

When the bacon is about 3/4 of the way you like it, turn the heat up to high and add the avocado oil. 

When the oil is shimmering, (not smoking – That’s too hot), add the onion, celery and chiles.

adding the Holy Trinity to maque choux
adding the Holy Trinity to maque choux

Stir fry, steadily working the mix to incorporate. When the onions start to turn translucent, add the garlic and stir fry for a minute or so until the raw garlic smell dissipates. 

Final ingredients
Final ingredients

Add the corn and stir fry steadily to heat through and incorporate – If things are getting a bit hot, turn heat down somewhat – I change heat constantly as I cook on a wok, and so can/should you.

Stir fry the mix until the corn starts to get a little crust and the smells are driving you nuts.

Add the tomato, chive and thyme, a few shakes of seasoned salt and a grew twists of pepper, and stir fry to incorporate all the seasonings.

Maque Choux a la Urban
Maque Choux a la Urban

Transfer to a bowl and serve hot.

A BIG Oops!

So, I swore I’d written a brief post, back a few weeks, to explain that the Blog, in touch with its French roots, was to take its annual vacances d’été, ( I think that should be summer vacation, but my French frankly sucks), and invite y’all to pour through our voluble archives in the meantime

Turns out I didn’t…

1000 apologies, and thanks to a few of you who finally sent WTF messages too!

We’ll be back on track next week.